Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Lying to Children

Right up there with taking candy away from babies.

I had a memorable experience in a school science class. The teacher asked us to tell him about the sun. Everyone looked around smugly. This was an easy one. One classmate raised his hand and proudly proclaimed, "The sun is a big ball of burning gases." He looked around, and we all nodded our sage heads in confirmation.

The teacher went on to explain to us that the sun was not burning gases, but rather a thermonuclear reaction. Fusion to be exact, and as Einstein's famous equation helps us understand, a little bit of gas goes a long way in creating the energy that we receive here on the Earth as heat and light.

That was very interesting, from a scientific point of view. Something even more interesting happened during that class, from a social point of view. Many students were upset that this hadn't been explained to us much earlier. Upset that we had been told the burning gases theory. As one student put it, "They lied to us!" And, we were upset that we had believed it so easily.

But was it a lie? Or was it just a simplification?

We all had experience with fire and burning things. Fire also creates heat and light. None of us had any experience with nuclear reactions. So why not teach us that the sun was a ball of burning gases?

Not only teachers engage in this simplification/lying. Parents, too, tell their children all kinds of stories. We know that they are at an impressionable age, an age when it is difficult for them to distinguish truth from fiction.

Consider the so-called fairy tales. We adults know that they are fiction. But do our children?

In a recent facebook exchange, my niece Josie wanted "to point out that Cinderella is living proof that shoes CAN change your life!" [emphasis in original; see below]

Very clever, Josie. I responded with a tongue-in-cheek question, "In what sense is Cinderella living?" Everyone (except perhaps most of the small children in our audience) knows that Cinderella is a fictional character, and therefore does not really "live" as we do.

Note that Josie's friend interjects with what feels like a great deal of passion, "In our hearts!"

Exactly. Notwithstanding her being fictional, Cinderella does live. In many hearts. As a role model. As an example of courage and determination. As a woman who got ahead by wearing the right shoes.

I touched on this kind of reality in my dissertation, while describing Popper's three worlds explanation of those things which exist.

So in a way, we lie twice to our children. First, we allow them to believe that a fairy tale is true, when it is in fact fiction. Then, later, we deny the reality of the fairy tale, saying, "Oh, that's just a story."

It is both more complicated and simpler than that. The story exists in (Popper's) world 3, and in fact, existed there long before we were born, having been created long ago in someone's world 2. It exists in fact in many world 1 artifacts: books, audio tracks, film, television, theatrical productions, etc.

When it was read to Josie, many years ago, there was a book (existing in world1) and a reader (both world 1 and world 2), and especially, a listener (the world 2 of Josie) who incorporated the story in all of its elements into her own very personal reality. The character (existing in world 3) of Cinderella is very real.

So, is lying to children okay, then? Taking candy from a baby could actually save it's life in some cases. Something to think about.


Nancy said...

Ah, we have a special term for that in language learning: the spiral effect.

It is easy to look back and say, "What!? We didn't learn it this way! We learned it _____ way! Why didn't they tell us this the first time?!"

And, yes, you do feel a bit betrayed, a bit lied to. The new way of doing things is often easier: it answers more questions, explains things better, and just overall works smoother.

But you wouldn't have understood it the first time around, as you mentioned with the nuclear reaction. So you learned it was a burning ball of gas. But the next time the spiral comes around you learn that it is kinda-sorta-like a burning ball of gas but more like...and on it goes.

I'm sure that you didn't learn EVERYTHING about the sun in that class and perhaps learned something different (or more complex) in a high school course. And then again in university.

By the way, they took Pluto away?!

That totally throws off everything I learned in science class...

Bruce Conrad said...

Subtly different from the spiral effect is the case of the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. It's a great motivator for getting kids to tell the truth even if it gets them in trouble (never mind the 5th amendment!).

It is unclear whether the story is actually "true" in the sense that it really happened. If you search the Internet for it, you'll find lots of interesting approaches to the question of its "truth".

So, the first time you hear the story, you likely vow to be brave like Washington was. The next time around the spiral, when you learn it might not be true can be pretty disconcerting, and may lead to cynicism.

Bruce Conrad said...

Oh, and yeah. Pluto. Still a planet in my mind. Learned that at too early an age. Good example.

And thanks for introducing me to the spiral effect, Nancy!

Myrna said...

Very interesting! I still think that you, mon frere, should apply to UNISA and get a Ph.D., just editing your old dissertation. You can do it in like computer history or something!

Andrew said...

This was interesting. It's also kind of funny, my mom was just telling me the other day I should ask you to explain Popper's three worlds to me!